Unfinished Business

By STEPHEN BONSAL
Introduction by HUGH GIBSON
A MORE timely book than this could hardly be imagined. In the construction of a durable and effective fabric of collective security, the world truly faces “unfinished business”; and from a hitherto unknown source, the diary of the confidential interpreter for President Wilson and Colonel House in the sessions of the Peace Conference Commission for drafting the League Covenant , we find a st rong light poured on the reasons why the first effort broke down. This intimate and revealing impression of events in 1919 contains valuable sections on Vienna and Southeastern Europe, on warravaged Berlin, and on Washington, but its most striking pages describe what went on behind closed doors in Paris.
After the Conference and the unhappy American battle over the treaty had ended, Colonel Bonsai asked House to explain the curious shifts in his attitude toward Wilson’s attendance in Paris. House said that he had at first regarded the President’s decision to go to Europe as a tragic error. But by the end of January, 1919, he realized that he had been mistaken. “I was convinced that but for the presence of the President the Peace Conference never would have been convened at all; certainly never would have gotten down to work. The powers would have split up into groups, peace treaties would have resulted, quite a number of them in fact. They would have been contradictory, and none of them would have been worth the paper they were printed on. Without his presence our peace ship never would have been launched. The pressure which he exercised upon his motley co-workers never could have been exercised by cable. The President’s first sojourn in Paris had been an astonishing success, the future course of the world had been charted in broad lines, the recalcitrants had been brought to heel.”
At home the rally to the League was most encouraging. But Wilson, House continued, risked too much when he returned. The Conference descended to power politics and drew Wilson into “guerrilla wars” which dismayed home opinion. In America hostile Senators and embittered economic interests saw their chance, and began a relentless and largely unscrupulous campaign against President and treaty. The end was disaster.
The vivid book bears out the general correctness of House’s judgment. It bears primarily upon the prodigious labor of drafting the Covenant. Colonel Bonsai takes a detached view of Wilson. He deals frankly with the President’s error in failing to appoint a leading Republican like Root to the Peace Commission, his prejudice against Lansing, his petty attitudes and gestures on various issues. But as he watches Wilson direct the writing of the Covenant, extort agreement from Lloyd George and Balfour, thwart Clemenceau and the cynical Sonnino. and carry to victory his dominant idea thata redeeming worldorganization must be “intertwined” with the treaty, he becomes filled with admiration. “We are here,” said the President as he moved his adoption of the League resolution on February 14, “to see that the very foundations of this war are swept away.”
Then he went home to close Congress. He brought League amendments from America which weakened him in Europe; he was caught between two fires; his foes in Washington and Paris gave encouragement to each other; the whole tone of the Conference degenerated; abuse became shriller and shriller. In mid-February a great victory had seemed won. Six weeks later House gloomily remarked: “Years may pass before the war psychosis that enthralls the world is cleared away.”
Those present-day liberals who read the book will gain a better understanding of the dangers they face. We can build on Wilson’s great unfinished work; we should knowhow to avoid his errors and to deal better with his and our enemies. But the book is worth reading for more than its lessons. Here are delightful sketches of Clemenceau, battling Wilson, chaffing his nurses, and using the dull Bourgeois as a butt for his wit; Balfour, oppressed by philosophic doubts and “a coterie of female cousins, aunts, and nieces”; Smuts, striking a fire of idealism even in flinty hearts; the witty Orlando; and the slippery Lloyd George, fairly caught out on one sharp turn by some forgotten letters. Here are pictures of Vienna in despair, Budapest under the “Lenin boys,” and Berlin in the sullen hate of defeat. Here are Lodge and the other plotting isolationists as Bonsai saw them in Washington. But one figure dominates the book — the tragic vet magnificent figure of Woodrow Wilson. Doubleday, Doran, $3.00.
ALLAN NEVINS